Fighting with my thesis: Juggling a PhD and the life of a fighter (part 1)

PhD students are all brain and no brawl. True? Not really. The life of a PhD student is more than just the university. Imagine then if you have to juggle the many challenges of the PhDLife with being a Muay Thai fighter. Nora Castle, PhD student in the department of English and Comparative Literary Studies, knows this reality very well. How does she do it? Read more to find out the exciting and very bruised daily life of an academic fighter.

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PhD student Nora will have her first official fight on the S3 show in Coventry on March 14th. I accompany her daily struggles trying to fit in studying, networking, teaching, and training at her local gym, 8 Limbs Academy. For this post I’ve interviewed her to get a sense of her thoughts on this juggling act.

Sports and mental health

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Doing any activity outside of academia to remind yourself you are not just a thinking head is a great solution to the mental toll it takes to be an academic. I know from experience that going for a swim after spending many hours reading theory in the library is reinvigorating. Punching bags can have the same effect. When you are in the ring or hitting pads, you have a controlled environment to focus your energy on.

Nora, originally from Queens, NY, studied at the University of Pennsylvania. She first found Muay Thai as a quick cure for heartbreak: 

Four or five years ago, back in Philadelphia, I had this really bad breakup and I had all of this energy that I needed to do something with, this anger and frustration. This gym had opened recently and they were doing a quick start trial, so you could pay for just two weeks, they would give you gloves and you could test them out. So I thought: I’ll try it. Why not?

After a hiatus, Nora trained briefly in New York before moving to Coventry to do her PhD:

I started back at a gym on Long Island called Rebel Thaiboxing. I sort of started from scratch because I hadn’t done it in so long, and I had only done it for a short amount of time the first time. Then before I even moved to Coventry, I looked up Muay Thai gyms and I emailed them and I was like “Listen, I land on the Thursday, can I come in on the Friday to do a trial class?” and 8 Limbs Academy said yes. So now I’ve been training again for about a year and a half.

Fight and fit

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Nora and Raf Hussain

The road to becoming a fighter is full of its ups and downs. Outsiders often don’t understand where the advantages can be found. But Nora swears it is all worth it:

First off, it gives you a goal to work towards, right? When you have the fight you have a very concrete goal, you’re like, ok, I have to be able to do this amount of rounds, I have to be able to spend this amount of energy and think about strategy and stuff. It’s exhausting and difficult but it also makes you feel strong and powerful and you feel like you can conquer the world, because it’s really difficult but you’re making it through and even when there’s bad days you know that you’re going to tough it out.

The frequent bruises, the dietary restrictions and often conflicting advice thrown around all help in making the process somewhat overwhelming. On top of that, fighters need to find time outside of training for other types of physical training, like strength training and cardio.

Fighting with myself or with my thesis?

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Nora at a grading with trainer Lynsey Sharman and yours truly

I have had my share of bruises and broken limbs when I practiced Tae Kwon Do, something my poor music teachers hated. In fact, the struggle between keeping up a sports routine, which will involve at least some soreness here and there, and a life of writing, typing, marking and also Repetitive Strain Injuries aplenty, make all of this a painful journey. In fact, sitting at a desk all day typing can make sports injuries worse, and getting injured in sports can make sitting at a desk all day worse as well. How can you juggle such things? How does fighting preparation compare to the journey of a PhD

 With the PhD you do have a fixed thing that you need to do at the very end of it, but it’s so far away, and all the intervening steps are really nebulous. Everybody’s journey is different, obviously, but sometimes it feels like you don’t know what the heck you’re doing. The goals of fighting and of training are much more concrete and much more physical, obviously, so I think it’s a good counterpoint to all the mental activity that I am doing in the PhD.

If you are frustrated about your research, or disappointed with your flatmate, supervisor, friends or lovers, punching a bag or kicking a pad 50 times or, my favourite, elbowing the hell out of something helps tremendously. In any case, it is always better to do that on a pad than on your supervisor’s face, in my view.

To be continued…

by Lúcia

Lúcia Collischonn is a second-year PhD student in Translation Studies at the Warwick Writing Programme. She is the editor of the library blogs, Study Blog and PhD Life. Lúcia is an award-losing literary translator, writer, language nerd and a failed yellow band in Muay Thai. Her translation of Yoko Tawada’s Etüden im Schnee was published last year in Brazil. You can find her ramblings on twitter @lucycolli. 

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